Path forward for Penn State football depends on perspective: Nittany Lions final thoughts
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Path forward for Penn State football depends on perspective: Final thoughts

The contrast could not be more severe.

Leading Iowa at Kinnick Stadium Saturday afternoon, 14-3, Penn State’s offense had, despite two poor decisions leading to turnovers, done virtually anything it wanted for the first quarter otherwise.

Against a vaunted Hawkeyes defense that entered the game with national acclaim for its takeaway creation and the clamps it put on five opponents to that point in the season, the Nittany Lions had exposed cracks. That meant a nine-play drive for 75 yards and a touchdown on their second possession, a four-play, 39-yard touchdown off an interception, and a 14-play, 66-yard drive leading to a field goal to open the second quarter.

But upon the injury sustained by quarterback Sean Clifford, still undisclosed in its specificity and severity, that all changed.

Taking an unmitigated shot by Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell on third-and-7 at the Hawkeyes’ 15-yard line, the Nittany Lion signal-caller overthrew tight end, Brenton Strange, kicker Jordan Stout entered to send home a 32-yard field goal, and Clifford would be lost for the rest of the game, if not longer.

Though Penn State wouldn’t regain possession of the football until five more minutes of game action had passed, what took place from that point forward should offer a lesson for the Nittany Lions moving forward.

“In our program, it's a next man up mentality,” second-string quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson told reporters after the game. “Coach (Mike) Yurcich and Coach (James) Franklin prepare everybody, all the backups, to be in a position like this.”

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin saw his fourth-ranked Nittany Lions fall to No. 8 this week.
Penn State head coach James Franklin saw his fourth-ranked Nittany Lions fall to No. 8 this week. (Steve Manuel/BWI)

While the sentiment might be true, the reality of the Nittany Lions’ performance offered a distinctively different narrative.

With a backup in at quarterback, the wheels came off entirely. And, importantly, Roberson was not the only Nittany Lion unprepared for that moment.

Running 46 plays the rest of the way, Penn State’s offense displayed a level of basic dysfunction beyond those inflicted by Iowa’s salivating defense or its blood-thirsty fans. Including the debacle of three plays run while losing 16 yards on Roberson’s first series, three consecutive times drawing false start penalties, the Nittany Lions found themselves locked in a self-perpetuating spiral of bad field position with no answers.

The numbers back it up.

Excluding a three-play series to simply get to the locker room at the half, Penn State had 10 more meaningful possessions the rest of the game. Eight of those possessions were three-or-fewer plays. Including turnovers on downs, Penn State relented possession of its own accord. All but two possessions took less than 1:33 off the game clock. And four of the possessions began with the ball inside Penn State’s 10-yard line.

Bringing out a handful of players for press interviews following the game in addition to a short press conference from head coach James Franklin, two themes emerged.

The first was that the Nittany Lion defense deserved major kudos for how well it had stifled Iowa’s offense and hung in with so much working against it, given the circumstances. The second was a rallying of support for Roberson, both from Penn State’s few offensive players to take questions (Rasheed Walker and KeAndre Lambert-Smith) as well as from the defenders who did interviews.

“Ta’Quan, I honestly feel like he didn’t do terrible for his first game. He was just put in really funky situations. It’s already hard enough to play here with these crazy fans,” Walker said. “But I think Ta’Quan is ready. I feel like he just came in and tried his best.”

Ultimately falling 23-20, the Nittany Lions tumbling to No. 8 in the newest set of rankings from the Coaches Poll and No. 7 in the AP Poll, a telling reaction has emerged in the time since.

Certainly, from the fans’ side of things, a clamoring for injury news regarding Clifford’s status moving forward reached an immediate fever pitch that hasn’t subsided. With Franklin available to the media this week only Wednesday evening for about 10 minutes, the Nittany Lions’ normal schedule upended by the off date this weekend, and an injury policy that dictates no comments unless season-ending, anything firm from the program is unlikely to come anytime soon.

And even from the players, including Clifford, a social media post on Monday created a tantalizing note of optimism for his return.

Here is a counterpoint:

Penn State’s coaches, players, and fans have already passed the expiration date of feeling sorry for themselves.

For a program that wallowed in absolutely warranted self-pity a season ago, a crushing avalanche of bad news cascading from one day to the next that included the losses of Micah Parsons, Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Pat Freiermuth, and others, the future offers a simple proposition for this group, with or without Clifford.

Figure it out or fail.

And the bottom line here is that Penn State has worked too hard to get to this point as a program, its opportunities very much still in play, to let failing serve as anything but the absolute last option.

For Roberson, the clock is ticking with less than two weeks until the moment will potentially be his. For offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, this is where the money and prestige have an opportunity to shine further. For the Nittany Lion offensive teammates devastated by the setback of any absence from their leader, the opportunity exists now to lift another teammate by creating in ways that did not happen on Saturday afternoon in Clifford’s vacancy.

Even defensive coordinator Brent Pry and his impeccable group, and that of special teams Joe Lorig and his group, have opportunities at hand. Penn State’s defense might have to win games. Penn State’s special teams might have to live up to Lorig’s mantra to “change the game.”

If anything, though the circumstances were different, the results of Penn State’s performance in 2020 is the blueprint of perspective the program might have to take moving forward. But only once the aura of opportunity is embraced, against what transpired in that moment Saturday, can these Nittany Lions take that path.

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